On a dark morning this week I will be en route to the Marquesas–the Marquesas Keys west of Key West, not the Marquesas Islands of French Polynesia. That trip across the Pacific will come later–next year, God willing. Nonetheless, the Marquesas in the Key West National Wildlife Refuge is still one of the most beautiful places on this earth. I know these islands well having made this 20-mile passage from Key West more than a thousand times during my 30-year tenure as a Florida Keys fishing guide.
I have always loved the pre-dawn departures, especially on moonless nights when when the sea and the sky seem to blend together as one. Those passages to the Marquesas were made in a small skiff, not a sailboat. It was work then and not what John Masefield called the “vagrant gypsy life.” Still, I cherished these mornings. The route west of Key West is away from civilization. There are no city lights, although on a very dark night in the Marquesas it is possible to see the lume of Havana glowing in the clouds 90 miles to the south.
These dark nights on the water have always reminded me of being alone on my transatlantic passage nearly 35 years ago. In mid-ocean on a calm night the stars would reflect off the water. Without a horizon it would seem as if I was a celestial being hurtling through space; as if the little sloop was in a physical universe beyond the surface of the earth. And how often is that possible without the help of mind-altering substances?
So, as I wait for my new ship to be built, and my star to steer her by, I will be content to to find my way on the water by whatever means possible and I will consider myself blessed when I can make a passage through the darkness.
I must down to the seas again, to the lonely sea and the sky,
And all I ask is a tall ship and a star to steer her by,
And the wheel’s kick and the wind’s song and the white sail’s shaking,
And a grey mist on the sea’s face, and a grey dawn breaking.
I must down to the seas again, for the call of the running tide
Is a wild call and a clear call that may not be denied;
And all I ask is a windy day with the white clouds flying,
And the flung spray and the blown spume, and the sea-gulls crying.
I must down to the seas again, to the vagrant gypsy life,
To the gull’s way and the whale’s way where the wind’s like a whetted knife;
And all I ask is a merry yarn from a laughing fellow-rover
And quiet sleep and a sweet dream when the long trick’s over.
By John Masefield (1878-1967).
(English Poet Laureate, 1930-1967.)